The title of this movie refers specifically to Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams, an unfairly neglected animator whose story is told in this engrossing documentary. The name was given to him ironically, given that Williams was anything but what that derogatory slang term might suggest. That said, Williams was and still is a controversial character, and his story certainly merits a telling.
Scott Leberecht’s film, which snagged a world premiere as part of the 2022 SXSW festival, details how Steve Williams was at the centre of a paradigm shift in Hollywood special effects and film-making generally. Remember the watery aliens in James Cameron’s The Abyss? The mind-blowing liquid robots of Terminator 2? And Williams was a driving force behind the creating the celebrated dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, so realistic that one pundit noted, ‘You can’t tell which ones are real, and which ones are fake.’ That film abruptly switched from physical and stop-motion effects to mainly digital, and started a wave of CGI that has elevated concept ideas and ruined films ever since.
And Williams gets it; even in an early tv interview, he talks of himself being a Frankenstein creative, who will unleash a monster on the world that can’t be controlled. As this film brings his story up to date, Williams is portrayed as a lonely and unhappy man, ruing his missed chances and choices. Few are celebrating his later projects like Spawn or family animation The Wild; it’s clear that something snapped in his career development, and that takes the form of run-ins with Industrial Light and Magic, Kathleen Kennedy and George Lucas, and powerful animator Dennis Muren.
The early days of any boom industry have the excitement of the Wild West, and about as much legal support for workers; there’s several agonising anecdotes collected here, specifically one in which Williams and his team invade Lucas’s inner sanctum at the Skywalker Ranch. It’s clear that hubris eventually got the better of Williams, and even if his effects were revolutionary, clashes of ego effectively stopped him reaching his peak creatively. Spaz is a sympathetic retelling of a classic Icarus story, a talented man crashing and burning when he leaves too many unhappy collaborators behind. It’s notable who talks and who doesn’t here; as a film, Spaz will be of huge interest to those who contribute to the carpet of names at the end of most movies these days, the effects guys, but it’s very much his own version of the story with no rebuttal. Even in the digital world, the film business is all about relationships, and if you can’t make them work, mercurial talent or not, you’re out on your ear.